I was in Brussels yesterday, my first time every (or at least, that I'm old enough to remember), on a short work trip of just over 24 hours. What a fun (and funny!) place!
The first fun thing that happened to me was actually as I was waiting in the lobby of my client's building to give a presentation. I ended up waiting quite a while, meaning I had a chance to watch what was playing on the lobby TV: Tetris. Yes, Tetris. More specifically, Blokken, a game show centered around Tetris, where two players (one relaxed and smiling, the other taking this all very seriously) faced off against each other. It's the longest-running game show in Balgium, with over 4000 episodes! The show was in Dutch, so I had no idea what was going on, but I was entranced nevertheless! The host kept stopping the game whenever things started to get suspenseful. The studio audience went - I kid you not - WILD every time either player eliminated a row of blocks. I mean, I was practically going wild right there in the lobby, so I can't say I even blame them! I could have watched that all day long. New goal in life: appear on a Belgian game show.
I was determined to make the most of my few free hours after delivering my presentation. What can be done in Brussels with only a couple of hours, you ask? It turns out, quite a lot!
I tried to hit up every stereotype I could think of. Quick! Think of a Belgian stereotype! Did you come up with beer/mussels/French fries/chocolate/waffles/Tintin/statue of a peeing boy? I did them all (you'll notice they're mostly food, so this wasn't really all that difficult). And not only are they everywhere, but they combine, too! Tintin eating waffles. The peeing boy peeing beer. Chocolate in the shape of mussels. Tintin and the peeing boy, together, made out of chocolate, eating waffles.
First, I strolled through the city center - which is full of charming little cobblestoned streets and quiet alleyways - to find Manneken Pis, arguably the most famous site in the city. Yes, those adorable Belgians have chosen as their city symbol...a urinating child. No one seems to know exactly what the origin of this statue even is, with competing legends including that of a young lad saving the city, and the King, by peeing on a lit fuse set to detonate the city. Another thing I loved is that, while the boy statue is 397 years old, in 1985 someone decided to create a modern counterpart of a urinating girl: Jeanneke Pis. That one is much less famous, tucked away at the end of a little cul-de-sac, but hey, it's cute, it brought a smile to my face, and you don't have to fight off other tourists. A fun fact for your next trip to Belgium!
Then I made my way to the Grand' Place or Grote Markt. That's another interesting thing about Brussels: as a bilingual French/Dutch city, everything has two names. And while I won't pretend to fully understand the linguistic sensitivities of Belgium, I felt strangely tentative about speaking to people: was it all right to speak to them in French, some part of me wondered (given that I don't speak one blooming word of Dutch)? Was it...safe? Might I offend anyone? This was obvious over-thinking on my part, because no one could have cared less, and while a few people didn't seem overly comfortable with French, it couldn't have been easier to get around town.
Anyway, the Grand' Place is really impressive. It's an enormous square of absolutely beautiful buildings, some of them edged in gold, the likes of which you really only find in big, old European cities. I immediately made plans to come back after nightfall, so I could see everything lit up, too. (Which at this time of year meant coming back at 10pm--hurray for long days!)
Then I went looking for Mary's, one of many famous chocolatiers in the Belgian capital. Now, here's where I have to confess something that hurts my heart a little. Because, I'm Swiss. We love our chocolate. We are famous for it, the world over. There is a sort of unofficial rivalry between Switzerland and Belgium over who has the world's best chocolate. But after yesterday, I'm sorry to have to say that BELGIUM DOES IT BETTER. I don't mean that their chocolate actually tastes better (after some sampling, I was relieved to note my own taste buds still leaned Swiss), but...the artisan chocolate shops in Brussels! They're everywhere! They're magnificent! They're inviting! They're warmly decorated with beautiful displays and friendly staff! We don't HAVE that in Switzerland. Sure, we have chocolate shops, but they're so...commercial. BELGIUM IS DOING IT BETTER, YOU GUYS, GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER SWITZERLAND!!! (Hop Suisse, indeed!)
After some decadent chocolatey goodness (and a little patriotic grumbling over those gorgeous chocolatiers), I made my way to the Museum of Comic Books. You've probably heard of Tintin, Lucky Luke, Astérix, Gaston, Boule et Bill, or any of the other myriad Belgian comics. I got there shortly before the museum closed, so only had time to take a quick peek at the ground floor and gift shop, but even that brought up some nostalgia. I love Tintin. I owned every single one as a kid, and bought them again as an adult. Captain Haddock was quite possibly my earliest celebrity crush (yes, I have a thing for bearded fictional sailors multiple decades older than I!) I was in fact so nostalgic that when I randomly stumbled onto a second-hand bookshop, I went in and bought one of my favorites: The Secret of the Unicorn.
Then I looked up the best place to grab a Belgian beer. You may remember I don't like beer, and never have, but somehow, at A La Bécasse, an adorable historical pub frequented by locals, the unthinkable happened: I found the best beer I've ever tasted. Served in a cute ceramic jug, the local specialty of just one of Belgium's 1150 original beers won me over. The Lambic Doux, a cider-like, soft, delicious beverage with just a hint of tang. Sitting there, sipping some golden goodness with a fun book from my childhood and some Jacques Brel classics playing in the background... Oh Brussels. You have seduced me.
For dinner, I headed for the most famous restaurant in the city: the original Chez Léon, the precursor of all worldwide Léon de Bruxelles restaurants. It's a classic old brasserie, surprisingly affordable and perfect for sampling some good old Belgian mussels and fries. Mmmmm, mussels.
To cap off the day, I needed that staple of a great Belgian dessert: the waffle. And for that, I was ready to bypass the many small shops selling them for 1 euro to go to the highest-rated one I could find: the Funambule, just around the corner from Manneken Pis. While it's not the most authentic option they offered, I chose the one with chocolate sauce, strawberries, and bananas. Somewhere, buried under all those toppings, was a waffle. The best damn waffle I've ever tasted. I don't even LIKE waffles, but this one was fluffy and perfectly sweet. It made me wonder - after beer and waffles - what OTHER foods could Brussels make me rethink?? Perhaps next time I visit I'll have to try Belgian olives, or pickles!
I had an absolutely lovely time in Brussels, though it's hard not to think of the fact that only two months ago, the city suffered the worst terrorist attacks in Belgium's history. Armed police were everywhere. Several of the people I met mentioned the change in atmosphere in the city since then, the fear, the looking over your shoulder more than you did before. I can't imagine the pain it's caused, but all I can say is that I hope it doesn't discourage anyone from visiting this absolutely beautiful, safe, and charming city. I personally look forward to going back.
And until that happens, I'll take with me some wonderful memories or a half-day well-spent. Thank you, Brussels, merci and dank uwel!